If you listened closely you could hear the bonds of Israel-American Jewish ties unraveling last week in Jerusalem. And then it got worse.
The confrontation between Benjamin Netanyahu and religious leaders of the Conservative and Reform movements was a milestone moment, a dramatic indication that the tradition of deference among diaspora Jewry for an Israeli prime minister’s pleas on a Jewish issue of great import is no longer a given.
Last Tuesday, Netanyahu publicly called for the cancellation of a protest scheduled for the next morning over the government’s delay in carrying out its decision to create a space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. Seeking private dialogue and asking for “patience and tolerance,” the prime minister said: “We have one people and one wall — it’s our wall. The less publicly we talk about it, the better chance we have to resolve it. The last thing we need is more friction, as that will make a solution more difficult.”
There was irony in the prime minister’s words because leaders of the liberal Jewish movements have long insisted that precisely because we are “one people with one wall,” all Jews should have equal access to pray there in their own tradition. And it was Netanyahu’s delay in implementing an agreed-upon solution — at least a temporary one — that prompted the friction.
To review: The Chief Rabbinate – an institution that has moved increasingly to the right in recent years — has control over prayer at Judaism’s holiest site and has maintained that prayer services be separate for men and women, in the Orthodox tradition. Over the last several decades there has been bitter contention, marked by court cases and physical as well as rhetorical confrontations at the site, including arrests. Most notably, charedi protesters often have sought to disrupt the monthly Rosh Chodesh services held by Women of the Wall, the group seeking the right to include Torah reading for women and other traditional rituals in their prayer gatherings at the main plaza facing the Wall.
The women, and those who sympathize with their efforts, speak out for equality in prayer; their opponents call for respect for centuries-old tradition at the Kotel, underscoring one of the unique and ongoing tensions for a democratic Jewish state.
A compromise solution, after three years of discussion and debate, was heralded last January when the government voted to build a new section at the southern area of the Wall, near Robinson’s Arch, so that men and women could pray together. Natan Sharansky, who heads the Jewish Agency for Israel, played a key role in hammering out the plan.
But the leaders of several charedi religious parties, who were brought back into the government coalition after the latest national elections, balked at the proposal. Netanyahu, fearful of losing his one-vote Knesset majority, has chosen to delay the implementation of the plan, seemingly indefinitely.
But his call for patience was too little, too late for the Reform and Conservative leaders, whose movements represent the great majority of American Jews but whose rabbis are not recognized by the Jewish state. In what Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, called “an act of spiritual disobedience,” he and Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and their supporters, carried 14 Torahs and pushed their way past security officials at the site of the Kotel last Wednesday morning to call attention to their demands. They joined the Women of the Wall in the Rosh Chodesh service.
It should be noted that while most Orthodox leaders seek to maintain the status quo at the Kotel, several prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel, including Shlomo Riskin and Benjamin Lau, who have followings in the U.S., came out in support of implementing the compromise. They asserted that the holy site is too precious to be left in the control of Orthodox Jews exclusively, and that every Jew has a right to feel at home at the Kotel.
Netanyahu criticized the demonstration as causing “unnecessary friction.” He said it was a “unilateral violation of the status of the Western Wall.”
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What he did not address is why he put a stop to the implementation of the compromise agreement. We are left to conclude that he is placing politics, and specifically his control of the coalition, over matters of principle and Jewish unity. That’s neither new nor surprising, and Netanyahu is not the first Israeli leader to make his political flexibility his top priority. But his action, or rather inaction, only amplifies the frustration of so many American Jews who feel that their brand of Judaism is seen as second-class in Israel. As Rabbi Wernick noted, the existing status quo “delegitimizes the rights of Jews around the world.”
AJC, which has played a leadership role in calling for religious pluralism in Israel the last several years, empathized with the “deeply held frustrations of Conservative and Reform Jews” and said their call for all Jews to pray “in peace and spiritual comfort at the Kotel…should not be ignored.”
But on Tuesday of this week, Dudi Amsallem, chairman of the Knesset Interior Committee and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, called on the prime minister to repeal the compromise resolution. His surprise move came after the committee toured the Kotel area and held a rancorous debate on the topic. Members of Yesh Atid, Zionist Union and Meretz favored the implementation of the resolution, which was passed last January. Those on the committee from Shas, United Torah Judaism and Likud were opposed.
“If American Jews are offended, it’s OK,” Amsallem said at one point.
The Jewish Agency’s Sharansky, addressing the Knesset, asserted that “there is room for all of us here, and we must tell all Jews who support us abroad and all who wish to immigrate to Israel that they are wanted and accepted among us.”
But Amsallem’s blunt remark, reflecting the attitude of Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and other charedi leaders, stings.
How long will such sentiments be tolerated in the diaspora?
For now, the same American Jews who support Israel in so many ways — financially, politically and in their kishkas — will continue to do so. But there is no guarantee their children and grandchildren will share the same sense of identity and commitment to a Jewish state whose definition of freedom of religion is limited — less than in any other Western country.
It seems clear that the next administration in Washington will look to improve its relations with Jerusalem in the new year. It’s important that the government in Jerusalem makes it a priority to improve relations with the great majority of diaspora Jews rather than risk weakening their support and affiliation.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is right in asserting that we are “one people with one wall.” A year ago he pledged in a letter to AJC “to unequivocally reject any attempt to divide us.” It is his duty as the leader of the state, and in many ways of the world Jewish community, to strengthen rather than divide the Jewish people by implementing the government’s decision to create a safe space for every Jew at the very heart of our spiritual heritage.